Michael Gerson

This massive expenditure became the political context for the health care debate. Because the national debt has increased by more than $1 trillion since Obama took office, the president was forced to make his case for health reform based on long-term cost savings. An immediate increase in spending, he argued, would be more than offset by eventual reductions in federal health spending.

But this case collapsed in a series of Congressional Budget Office estimates stating that both House and Senate health approaches would expand deficits during the current 10-year budget window and beyond. As it stands, Democratic plans create an expensive new health entitlement, make promises of cost savings that are insufficient or nebulous, raise taxes in economically destructive ways and cost more to the government in the long term.

Once again, Obama deferred to Democratic congressional leaders instead of producing a detailed plan of his own. Once again, their failures have become his own.

All this has combined to raise serious public concerns about spending, deficits and debt -- the main ideological achievement of Obama's political honeymoon, but probably not one he intended. The administration's primary economic spokesmen -- Tim Geithner and Larry Summers -- have hinted at the eventual need for broad tax increases to close the deficit. But the tax hikes required for Democratic health reform have an opportunity cost; they can't be used in a future deficit reduction deal. And such a deal would certainly require the president to break his unequivocal pledge not to raise taxes on anyone making less than $250,000 a year. No amount of administration trial balloons or explanation -- "Golly, the Republicans messed things up even worse than we thought" -- will make this broken promise palatable.

So these are the main accomplishments of the Obama honeymoon: a widely criticized stimulus package, a health debate poorly begun, and a growing, potentially consuming deficit problem. The initial period of Obama's presidency has revealed an odd mixture of boldness and timidity. A bold, even fiscally reckless, embrace of the priorities of the Democratic left. A timid, and politically unwise, deference to the views and approaches of the Democratic congressional leadership.

Obama can, of course, recover, as other presidents have done before. But he did not take full advantage of his honeymoon -- and he will not get it back.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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